“He was a rich man now,” she hesitantly and doubtfully uttered in Gamperaliya, thus setting down the confusions and conflicts and shifts of temper that would adorn the first honestly conceived Sinhala film ever made. The man who taught her English in that sequence, conducting lessons under her mother’s watchful gaze, aspired to be that rich man, and for the entirety of the film and its sequel, Kaliyugaya, he hoped to win her by gaining the wealth that his education would bring. She on her part gave the impression that she was no more than a submissive receptacle, never capable of any real free will or autonomy, and yet it was because of her submissiveness, her lack of a proper character, that the men and women who figured in her life changed so dramatically. In the very first scene of Gamperaliya Lester James Peries hence said everything that he wanted to say in this respect, and in so doing he went for the perfect couple: the English teacher was Henry Jayasena and the student was Punya Heendeniya.
In the history of the Sinhala cinema women have typically been portrayed as either the objectified fantasies of men they were supposed to be, in which case they were paragons of virtue, or the vamps, the seducers, the rebels they were taught all their lives not to be, in which case they were confused prodigals. Beginning with Rukmani Devi, the female figure almost always embodied goodness, but when she lapsed, when she went wayward, the hero and the star was there to rescue her. The first 20 years of our cinema, right after 1947, saw this kind of woman before the arrival of Malini Fonseka, who in Punchi Baba and Akkara Paha began playing to the fantasies of men by alluring them. The women of our cinema had existed to be rescued and redeemed by their lovers. It was with Malini that we saw a qualitatively different woman.
Between Rukmani and Malini, occupying a twilight world, we see Punya Heendeniya. Punya entered the industry towards the latter part of the 1950s as an idealised woman because Rukmani Devi, who herself was idealised, though as a more tragic figure, was situated in a largely urban and sophisticated setting. Punya figured in quite a different milieu: the rural Sinhala Buddhist bourgeoisie, who gained more prominence after 1956 and the election of Bandaranaike. In the films of L. S. Ramachandran – Deiyange Rate, Kurulubedda, Sikuru Tharuwa – we see the emergence and the empowerment in our cinema of this rural bourgeoisie, along with the myths that they affirmed and in a way symbolised. They all played around with variations of the conventional morality play, pitting good against evil and derived from the female goodness and male heroism which our culture (largely Sinhala and Buddhist) epitomised. Women were never allowed, in the early days, to a watch a Gammaduwa up close, nor were they allowed to don the headgear and go through the Ves Mangalya as they do today. That was at one level misogynistic, and was born in part from a culture of male protectiveness. The myth of female goodness derives for the most from this culture of protectiveness, and in Punya, who was featured in all those three movies, our storytellers found the archetype to square with that cultural sensibility.
The first 20 years of our cinema, right after 1947, saw this kind of woman before the arrival of Malini Fonseka, who in Punchi Baba and Akkara Paha began playing to the fantasies of men by alluring them
The outlook that was articulated and reflected in Deiyange Rate, Kurulubedda, and Sikuru Tharuwa was manifestly informed by the outlook of the Colombo Poets, who, while residing in Colombo, were obsessed with life outside the city. The village, to these poets (who were shaped by the Lake Poets of 19th century England), was the ultimate salvation of their country, their race. As opposed to the Peradeniya poets and novelists, who preferred a Westernised conception of literature, with the individualist, psychological subjectivity of D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, their counterparts in Colombo inadvertently borrowed from the early English theatre (that influenced the novels of Samuel Richardson) and placed the rural Sinhala Buddhist bourgeoisie and peasantry on the stereotypes of that early morality theatre: the young hero, the ageing villain, the good girl. All three films depicted and placed Punya as that good girl.
In these movies, she consequently privileges tradition over individuality, and gradually becomes bereft of a personality. Ediriweera Sarachchandra in The Sinhalese Novel (which bolstered Martin Wickramasinghe’s reputation) contended that the only characteristic of Nanda, from Gamperaliya, was her lack of any vivid character. She only existed to listen to her elders, to willingly reject any outside intrusions and step in line with the accepted authority. Gamperaliya was a more realistic, and thus a more multifarious, depiction of that obedient woman; Kurulubedda, which got praised so lavishly by Sinhalese critics (particularly those like Jayawilal Wilegoda) that it was erroneously considered the first real Sinhala film (instead of Rekava), wasn’t multifarious this way. The women in it existed in a dichotomised world, between good and evil, submission and rebellion: in short, the past and the future.
It was a Colombo poet who scripted these films, incidentally: P. K. D. Seneviratne, acknowledged by Lester James Peries as probably the only man at the time who wrote original movie scripts. He attributed to Punya’s characters an emotional resonance and spirit of resilience which could easily be squared with the triumph of moral goodness within her. Punya was a beauty, but never overly and superficially adorned: she was more a simple village damsel than the cosmetic nightingale that Rukmani Devi had been, and continued to be. She gave the impression of being fragile, of being open to abuse and exploitation, but because of her moral standing perhaps, she warded off every and any obstacle that beset her (particularly in Sikuru Tharuwa, where she wards off the advances of the lascivious vel vidane, played by D. R. Nanayakkara).
Her career was never as prolific and versatile as that of her contemporaries, but I’d like to think this was more a strength than a weakness on her part. In an industry where men were said to make the moves – long before Nadeeka Gunasekara, Swarna Mallawarachchi, and Anoja Weerasinghe came forward and, in the films they were in, repudiated the patriarchy inherent in their field – being a prolific actress could have diluted her image of the perennially optimistic and tradition bound woman. We needed her at this juncture (the 1960s) because, while her characters seem rather overly optimistic and hopeful today, they help explain, and also reflect, the subtle ways in which culture and cinema cross each other’s paths even in a society where the movies are still derided as a Western import (like ours).
Ramachandran’s Deiyange Rate, an adaptation of the W. A. Silva novel, was a watershed in this respect.
Punya was a beauty, but never overly and superficially adorned: she was more a simple village damsel than the cosmetic nightingale that Rukmani Devi had been, and continued to be. She gave the impression of being fragile, of being open to abuse and exploitation
Peries did away with the need to bifurcate our women – between goodhearted lovers on the one hand and unredeemable vamps on the other – with Gamperaliya. I wrote before that in Lester we come across our first film-maker who raised flak and earned praise from every quarter in our critical fraternity. That was because he was uncompromising in his attempts to peel away the false and the tawdry, the remnants of the past, which the Sinhala cinema thrived on. If Gamperaliya seems too slow paced today (especially to those who have short attention spans) it’s because no one can match his meticulous attention to visual detail. To a considerable extent this was true of his depiction of the two main women in the story: the Kaisaruvatte sisters, Nanda and Anula. In Punya he had found the perfect embodiment of rural innocence, but he never forced her to become one-dimensional the way she had been earlier. What this compelled, subsequently, was an amalgamation of sensibilities between the realist in Lester and the romantic in Seneviratne. The two would amalgamate in Ran Salu.
Kurulubedda was celebrated as the first real Sinhala film, erroneously, even though it was inspired by the visual loveliness of Rekava. Ran Salu, which is set against the urban bourgeoisie, in Colombo 7, was in that sense inspired by the milieu that was depicted in Delovak Athara, with roughly the same cast (Irangani Serasinghe, J. B. L. Gunasekara, Tony Ranasinghe). Laleen Jayamanne in her book Toward Cinema and its Double implies that in Ran Salu we see the authorial intervention of Peiris in the story’s transformation of the innocent village girl to an innocent Colombo 7 girl. But that wasn’t really Peries, because as he himself said frequently, he had no actual control over the plot: it was Seneviratne himself who had wanted to turn Punya into an urbanised version of the village damsel she had played before. Lester’s film is an inversion of the modernist paradigm of getting the city to assimilate the village; Punya’s character, Sujatha, well to do and complacent, sees the futility of such a thing and tries to achieve the opposite. Again, we see here that thin line between submission and rebellion, in turn reflected by the line between the past and the future. The past is idealised, poetically and in almost unrealistic ways, while the future is demonised (the antagonist, Cyril, who is engaged to Sujatha, dreams of such a future in England: he tells her father that he is disgusted by betel-chewing villagers). Unlike Seneviratne’s previous forays, here goodness and badness are not concentrated in the village, but are instead split between the rural and the urban: the former epitomised by Dayananda Gunadawardena as Senaka, the latter by Tony Ranasinghe as Cyril. Her implied engagement to the former at the end, which subverts our expectations of her taking to the life of a nun, repudiates any image we would have entertained of her giving up her upbringing for the religious. Punya, going by that, remained moored to the secular world, as a harbinger of moral goodness: a secular life of explicit devotion.
After her departure to Africa and later to England, with her husband, she returned to the cinema to play a different woman: the Nanda of Kaliyugaya
After her departure to Africa and later to England, with her husband, she returned to the cinema to play a different woman: the Nanda of Kaliyugaya. We see a shattering of the idealisms of her youth here; all that’s left is a shell-shocked, sterile, empty life. But one role was never enough, which is why, even today, as I look through all her performances, she remains the finest tribute to rural femininity we could have had. The cinema of rural femininity, in Sri Lanka that is, consequently belongs to her.